Rules and their Malleability

About once a book, I do something that I once swore I would never do.

My teenage years were a bit of a mess, in terms of writing, but that’s nothing particularly uncommon. The cockiness of perpetually favourable English class marks plus a wide range of reading habits including several blogs of writers far more nuanced in their opinions than I gave me a rather black-and-white view of certain things.  Most of my opinions have changed since then, but there are a few ‘rules’ and pet peeves that stuck with me.

A few of them are fairly common to writers on the Internet: No ending a story by finding a loophole that makes the rest of the story have not happened (aka: the Cosmic Reset Button, if you’re a Troper), no killing someone and then resurrecting them in the finale. A general mistrust though not outright rejection of Chosen Ones, prophecies, and Wise Old Mentors of young farmers with magical swords and/or a love of books incongruous with their time period and social status. But some of them are more personal. I don’t tend to like love triangles in fiction, so I don’t really want to write them. For a long time, I told myself I wouldn’t write prologues because they were done too often and too badly in the genre. I would especially never write a prologue in the form of a fairytale or mythological story.

But as these things usually go, the older I got and the more I came up with stories, the more I realised that I’ve broken pretty much every one of those promises to myself. I’m pretty sure I broke the ‘mentor’ thing in the very first book I wrote, young farmer and all, though there was a distinct lack of swords. I’ve killed someone and resurrected them as part of a finale – and I intend to keep that ending in the published product. I’ve written a book with not only a mythological prologue, but a mythological epilogue to bookend it. My latest first draft features a love triangle as a primary conflict in the plot.

Is this a bad thing? My first instinct is to say ‘no’ because I like to think I’ve used these tropes for the right reasons, and in the right way so that they avoid the situations that really drive me up the wall. But that’s an incredibly optimistic view. It’s very hard to read objectively, as after all, you know what you meant. The hardest argument to work around giving critiques is “But it’s different because …!” and they’re even harder when you can see so plainly how your character Isn’t Like Those Other Ones. I also like to think that I have very good reasons for disliking those tropes in other books, and I have evidence that other people feel the same way. If I care about earning money from writing, why would I expect them to give me forbearance for things that I’ve personally put books back on the shelf for mentioning in a blurb?

On the other hand, it’s not good to be too rigid. For instance, I hate the Cosmic Reset Button because it makes everything that came before it seem needless and in vain (especially in those books where, I kid you not, a character just sort of realises they could have done that from the start and solved the plot on page 1), and it seems like a betrayal. I can, however, imagine a story where it was done correctly. It would have to only be able to happen at the end of the story for whatever reason, and it would have to feel like the emotional and thematic culmination of the story, rather than cutting the emotional and thematic threads short with no resolution. If someone could contrive to write a story where that was the case, I could see myself rather enjoying the ending, in a ‘you-magnificent-accursed-human-being’ kind of way. Besides, innovation comes from doing the thing that people say  not to do, and doing it well (leaving aside the fact that I dislike some of those because someone did do them, and did them well, and then a lot of other people did them and did them well, but then people started to do them in the same way as the people before them and then they started to run out of options and do them badly and then the whole thing just sort of stopped being fun).

This has been a rather pointless musing, but I’ll just leave this here: This is reason number Prime One that I always give books to beta readers before the general public. I’m sure one day I’ll write something so awful that I’ll lose a friend over it for that reason, but hopefully they’ll tell me why I messed up before they go.

Dialogue Tags: Rethinking Rules

Now that I’ve apparently got that venting out of the way, let’s have a look at dialogue tags.

I’d like to start with the conventional wisdom, not from schools this time, but from writers.
Don’t use adverbs, ever.
Don’t use any verb other than ‘said’.
To steal a joke from Elmore Leonard, “they admonish gravely”.

Like all mediocre advice, there’s a lot of truth behind this, in specific areas. I’m still a little torn on whether it’s good “newbie” advice – after all, if we teach newbies that these are the rules, then expect them to know how and when to break them when they get more experienced, aren’t we doing exactly the thing I ranted about for so long last time?
Let’s back up and explore these a bit. I’m going to do them in reverse order, because I’m annoying like that. So – “don’t use any verb other than ‘said’.”

What’s good about this advice? Why would you tell this to a newbie? One very simple reason, really: Being able to put a fancy verb in a dialogue tag absolves the writer of having to work as hard in the dialogue to convey meaning.

“You won’t be able to do it,” she asserted.

Asserted conveys a lot there, in terms of tone. In many situations, that’s a perfectly acceptable sentence – in many contexts, it’s the best, most concise way of conveying the information.
But what about:

“It’s true!” she asserted.

How much do you really need ‘asserted’ there? The exclamation mark conveys much of the emphasis, and the simple declaration is short and forceful in and of itself. You could definitely read tone from the context (if you can’t read tone into “It’s true!” from context, the writer probably has more issues than just dialogue tags). “She asserted” just isn’t necessary.
Here’s the other issue:

“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To the shops, with friends,” his friend replied.

What extra information does “replied” carry here? Absolutely nothing. If it had been ‘retorted’, then the extra venom might have justified the fancy verb, but here you’re just distracting the reader for no purpose.
This is the argument for “no verbs other than ‘said’”: A new writer is better off avoiding these mistakes to encourage them to develop better dialogue writing skills than relying on the crutch of fancy verbs.

Here’s the bad: Some verbs are just better than said in their appropriate context. These are the verbs describing voice and nothing else.
If you need to convey that a character is modifying their volume or pitch, there is no better way than to use a verb meaning exactly that volume or pitch of voice, and leave it at that. Forcing a writer, especially a new writer, to convey those things through dialogue alone is likely to just end up with clumsy workarounds – extra exclamation marks, overuse of italics, ellipses all over the place, too much description of character action to provide context for the speech to convey tone.

The rule about adverbs comes from much the same place, though it’s a little more clear-cut. Reducing the new writer’s reliance on things outside dialogue forces development of dialogue writing. However, it’s much harder to talk about where the exceptions are, because adverbs are much more nebulous. If you’ve got an ear for writing, you’ll hear where they’re necessary, and where they add to the writing rather than taking away from it.
If you don’t, well … it’s not the sort of thing you can be taught. It’s a combination of sentence flow plus overall meaning divided by conciseness of sentence viewed through the lens of personal voice and writing style. Unfortunately, this is really useless to try and tell someone who’s new, so it just gets boiled down to “don’t” and we kind of hope that the new people learn how to use them right on their own eventually.

So, to talk about proper use of dialogue tags, I’m going to try taking an opposite approach: Define good dialogue tag use in terms of what it is, rather than what it isn’t.

Let’s stop and break down what the dialogue tag actually does. I would posit that a good dialogue tag has three purposes, in this order of importance:
– To identify to the reader who is speaking so that dialogue does not become confusing;
– To provide extra information on how to read the dialogue when context is insufficient; and
– To inform the flow of the sentence.

The first is fairly self-explanatory. The reader needs to know who is speaking. Adding “name/pronoun said” occasionally into the text keeps the speakers clear and makes reading easier. For this purpose, just ‘said’ is fine; no need for frills.

But, if you’re like me, you don’t like things that have only one purpose in the writing, and your dialogue does need some tone context to help it along, even if you’re amazing at character writing.
Still, fancy verbs all the time has a main problem: no matter how excellent your vocabulary is, you’re going to run out of verbs referring to speech that don’t sound just plain clunky (when you’re resorting to ‘pontificated’, you’ve officially run out of words), or you’re going to have some issues with repetition. Suddenly, nobody says things, everybody “hisses” – or more realistically, everyone who is angry “hisses” and everybody who is shocked “gasps”, and your individual characterisation kind of goes down the toilet.
Instead, action is your friend.

He rolled his eyes. “Are you quite done?”

“I didn’t mean it.” She scratched the back of her head.

Double-whammy! Characterisation and a shorthand for who’s speaking at any given time! It’s not lazy, it’s just efficient.

The third one, and the one you’re going to want to use really carefully, is dialogue tag to indicate flow.
Here’s a sentence with a fancy verb.

“I think we need to go to the house again,” he ventured.

Here’s a sentence with a judiciously-placed dialogue tag.

“I think,” he said, “we need to go to the house again.”

Here’s another.

“I think we need to go to the house again,” he said. “But it’s just my opinion, I guess.”

Even better:

“I think we need to go to the house again.” He glanced around the room. “But it’s just my opinion, I guess.”

The dialogue tag splits the sentence up and indicates hesitation or a significant pause without needing to use ellipses or saying “he hesitated” or any of those things. Flow is pretty much the most powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox – the first sentence with the fancy verb isn’t bad, exactly, but the ones after it just sound right as you read them. Combining appropriate use of flow with a well-placed action gives the best picture of what’s going on, and the most subtle.

Instead of talking about “said is dead” or not to use verbs or adverbs, I’d rather be pointing new writers to a checklist.
Does it need to be there to indicate who’s speaking?
Does it provide information that ‘said’ or the dialogue alone does not?
Is it used to indicate sentence flow?

After you’ve satisfied those criteria, you can start adding adverbs. I promise, they’re not going to bite you.

Does Writing Have Rules?

I’ve been reading a lot lately.  And because I’m the sort of person I am, I’ve been reading writing books.  I was at a second-hand bookstore sale a while back, where I picked up a writing book that must have been written in the early 1900s, given the books it was referencing.  Actually, it’s quite fascinating to read.  He’s denouncing the method of teaching writing in American schools, because it’s entirely technical, and fails to address the craft of writing.

Actually, it’s surprising how similar a lot of it is to what gets repeated endlessly on writer’s forums nowadays, giving examples and general instructions for how to make a character who seems realistic without being boring, when prose is overwritten and purple and when it’s not descriptive enough, and so on and so forth.  Actually, it’s incredibly similar to a lot of what I’ve been reading from modern writing experts and enthusiasts.

But it does make me think.  The way the information is presented is nearly entirely opposite to the way I was used to it being presented nowadays.  That is, it’s presented as actual instructions.

Nowadays, if you get writing advice from anyone, you’ll see advice prefaced with “Well, if you’re good enough, you can make anything work, but …” or “I generally think …” or “I find it useful to think about …”, the latter two usually concluding with something along the lines of “… but other people do it differently, so whatever works for you.”  In some ways, this is a good thing.  Writing advice should not be didactic, and it shouldn’t be presented in such a way that people are afraid to try other things and see if they work.  Writing should be about finding what works for the individual writer (with caveats for the amount of advice one should accept from others, particularly beta readers, but that’s a topic for another post, I think), rather than an exercise in ticking boxes.

But.  And here comes the big ‘but’.  I did a creative writing course a year or so ago, which I found absolutely useless, because the teacher refused to give definite advice.  She avoided giving any real advice, to the point where lectures were just a series of slides of examples with very little idea what they were examples of, besides a statement about genre or a vague style (very descriptive – ethereal – blunt and sparse).  And when we were given advice, it was given with caveats and disclaimers until the point was muddled and confused.  There was always yes, but and no, but; I never really recalled any of the advice, because the point just got muddled.

And this, from the reactions of some new writers I know online and in real life, is a serious problem.  There’s no restrictions, yes, but there’s no guidance, either.  Think of the beta reader who only says “yes, I love it”, when all you want is someone to give you an idea of where to go from there.  That’s pretty much what happens for the new writer surrounded by “whatever works for you”.  Yes, of course, but if you don’t know how to find out what works for you, there’s no use in the advice.

I think the issue is that we focus more on the exceptions than the rules.  Writing advice isn’t invalidated with the phrase “but [insert genius writer X] didn’t do it that way!”.  It’s advice, and it won’t work for everyone – that’s just the way advice works.  But today, we treat advice as having to be true in all situations in order to be true in any one – the Nirvana fallacy.  And I think that’s really damaging to the ability to give solid writing advice, particularly for people who are just getting a handle on their writing techniques themselves.

However, I’m often asked for writing advice by friends with a literary bent, and usually they’re looking for something actually helpful.  Anything from beta reading a novel, to “I’ve got this idea; what do you think?”.  I do think it’s important to give guidelines that at least point a newbie in a direction of the right track.

So, here are some things I do.
First, I don’t give advice, I discuss advice.  If it’s a controversial grammar rule, I explain my position and why I hold that position – also for advice like where and when to use adverbs.  If it’s something a little more ‘whichever works for you’, like on how to outline a novel, or construct a good character, I explain my method and why it works for me, then discuss some other methods.  The more tools I can give someone to make a decision, the better.
Second, I always tell people to get more than one opinion on anything.  I don’t want to be a writer’s only beta reader, or only source of writing advice.  I’m biased, just by virtue of having an opinion at all.  I don’t change things in my own work until more than four other people have told me it’s a problem (with some personal caveats, like anything else), and I don’t expect anything less from anyone I give writing advice to.
Third, I watch my own advice for my own knee-jerk reactions.  I know my genre best, and what is a problem in my genre may not be so in another genre.  On an even more basic level, I might despise a particular character, not because of bad writing or any fault of the author, but because I, personally, dislike that particular character.  Maybe they remind me of my least favourite classmate in high school, but they’re well-written and well-rounded – I find I can be tempted to find reasons to tell someone to change the story because of things like that, when the problem’s not with me.
Maybe I find a particular trope overused beyond all saving when another reader thinks it’s an old trope with a fresh and exciting twist.

So, reader input time, if you feel inclined.  What am I wrong about?  What haven’t I thought about?  What do you guys do that I could apply to my own advice-giving process?